Is Anyone Sola Scriptura?

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Coffee Shop Calvinism

I recently came across a group of men from the Reformed Church we left to become Catholic who were gathered at our local Starbucks. They were discussing theology, and didn’t notice I was sitting next to them for several minutes while they talked about things like “once saved, always saved,” TULIP, and other Calvinist doctrine. It was interesting to listen in on this discussion on some of the very issues that led me from that church and into a life as a passionate Catholic.

This is a group of men who are adamantly Sola Scriptura. But they left the coffee shop that day, not with Bibles in hand, but with thick-as-the-Catechism sized copies of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem clutched to their chests.

Is Anyone Sola Scriptura?

The belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, wherein one believes Scripture is sufficient to tell us all we need concerning the theological truths God desired to reveal to mankind, can only be believed to be true in light of accurate interpretation. Even to a non-Catholic it has to be, at the very least, Scripture + accurate interpretation.

The longer I look into these issues, the more I am convinced of the impossibility of truly being Sola Scriptura. Even the men from that Reformed Church, implicitly, are living out their faith through the interpretive lens of Grudem and his Calvinist interpretation of Scripture.

Now, this practical reality does not stretch as far as to encompass a Protestant substitute for the Catholic belief in Tradition and the Magisterium – and of course a Calvinist, for example, would say that even Grudem’s words are not infallible. But it does indicate heavily an implicit acknowledgement that Scripture requires an interpretive authority. We need to look at Scripture through some sort of lens. The importance of the accuracy of that lens cannot be understated because if we have a Bible, but can’t interpret it correctly, then we are in big trouble. And we can’t interpret it correctly on our own.

Who Do We Trust?

Even the strongest adherents to Sola Scriptura caution against a “Me, God and the Bible” approach to scriptural interpretation, though for many Protestant Christians, this is essentially what Sola Scriptura has become as denomination after denomination has diverged since the origins of the Reformation. What necessarily results is thousands upon thousands of Christians who are divorced entirely from any authoritative source, and they themselves become their own interpretive authority.

Others realize that we can’t divorce Scripture from its historical and cultural context, nor can we divorce it from the intent of the original authors, or the meaning of words in the original written language.

For those Christians, the question becomes: Who do we trust? How do we sift through the myriad of opinions on this section of Scripture or that? If the Bible is sufficient, how do we know what it is actually saying to the world? We are left on our own, or on the recommendation of our pastors, or the books of Christian authors and theologians like Grudem, Tim Keller, and others to help guide us in, what we hope, is the truth.

The “Ordinary Believer”

Reformed theologian Robert Godfrey writes: “The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand it.”

But is this what we practically see in the Church? How does sufficiency come into play with issues that are clearly addressed in the Bible, but differences in interpretation lead people to different conclusions? Take baptism, for example. Are we meant to baptize infants, or should we only baptize those old enough to make an independent profession of faith? It’s clearly addressed in Scripture, but we cannot agree on a meaning. Or what about Holy Communion? Is the bread and wine truly the Body and Blood of Christ, or is it meant to be a symbolic representation of the same? It’s addressed in Scripture. But what does it mean? We cannot understand these things unless we have an interpretive source we can trust.

I do agree that the “ordinary believer” can find what he/she needs to know to understand the basics of the gospel and salvation in the Bible. My 5-year-old can understand that foundation. She knows we have sinned, and Jesus died for us and rose again so we can be with Him. She knows we need to live for God. All things we can find and understand at a basic level in Scripture. But, I don’t agree that all things necessary concerning faith and life are clear enough for the ordinary believer to find it and understand it. The “ordinary believer” does not have a thorough enough understanding of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, nor does he/she have an understanding of the original language of Scripture to understand all things necessary concerning faith and life.

A Protestant Christian living in America with an ESV translation of the Bible will come to some different interpretive conclusions than a Protestant theologian who has access to and understands the original languages of the text. This is why it isn’t a matter of whether or not we need an authoritative interpretive source. It’s a matter of in which interpretive source we place our trust.

The Ultimate Question

Even if a Protestant claims their interpretive source is fallible, they still need to rely on an interpretive source. And it will be the one they think holds most closely to the truth. A truth determined by their own best understanding of how to approach Scripture.

And, in my final months as a Protestant, the ultimate question for me wasn’t whether or not I believed Sola Scriptura. My ultimate question became which interpretive source has the greatest biblical, historical, and logical claim to truth.

When I acknowledged that the Bible requires a trustworthy interpretive source, I didn’t know it then but I was a few months away from receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic Church. I have not found any authoritative person or source to even come close in terms of historical and cultural context, original intent, logical coherence and consistency, and theological and philosophical depth. It is my hope that we as Catholics can truly appreciate the gift we have in the authoritative interpretive teachings of the Church. I also hope that my Protestant brothers and sisters will begin an intentional search to begin to ask the question of who they trust to interpret Scripture accurately, and that they acknowledge the importance of the answer to that question. And when they make those inquiries, I hope they give the Catholic Church an equal chance among the other options out there.

I know it’s changed everything for me.


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19 thoughts on “Is Anyone Sola Scriptura?”

  1. Some Protestants appeal to the art or science of hermeneutics to get at the correct interpretation of Scripture. But even if you correctly exegete this or that Bible passage, your attempts to synthesize all these correctly-exegeted passages into a coherent theology is not infallible. Even worse, the rules of hermeneutics are not written in the Bible. (Indeed, many New Testament quotations of the Old Testament would be considered eisegesis –reading meaning into the text– rather than getting meaning out of it.) So appeal to rules of hermeneutics falsifies Sola Scriptura. As a Protestant I posed this dilemma to three evangelical pastors I knew. None of them had an answer. I’m Catholic now 🙂

  2. Pingback: MONDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA – Big Pulpit

  3. It’s all in the details. Depending on the issue, both Catholic and Protestant churches cite scripture when it supports their position, and run away from it when it doesn’t.

  4. Well let’s be honest with regard to Catholicism, we for the most part do not know the bible anyway. Most Catholics know certain parts, Sermon on the Mount, etc, but most do not know where to find that passage what precedes it or what comes after it. We are ignorant. So sola scriptura is kind of a joke with regard to the laity. I also believe that the bible is not just a reference book, but contains real revelations of God, Jesus, our traditions/history, and is the source of our faith. It does stand above the Magisterium as it is the foundation of all we believe. Now the Magisterium being comprised of learned men who have studied the bible along with theologians are (or should be) the ones most capable of interpreting in today’s world how to live a faith filled life devoted to God/Jesus. However, if and when something presents itself as marginal to uncertain to the faith it is right and just to question a gain not only a better understanding, but challenge new views and interpretations because they need to be justified. If they cannot be justified then perhaps something is amiss, or further explanation is merited.

    The desire to have ones faith exclusively SS could be viewed, especially by catholics, as a loss of trust/faith in the church itself. Where one starts believing that those overseeing the integrity of the faith have failed, misled the laity. I think we can all agree to some point that the days of “because Father said so” has been greatly diminished as numerous scandals have presented themselves over the years. Up to and including the revelation that we have been lied to and deceived by those we have “put our faith in”. Sometimes, i would bet, it has crossed many a mind that as a faith/church we need to revisit the basics/roots of the faith as we feel at times that something may have diverted or “jump the tracks”.

    1. Good points about Catholics not knowing the Bible. How many Catholics read the Bible at all or even really understand what the Mass readings are?

      Idon’t know that the Bible stands *above* the Magisterium. They should stand side by side, but you’re right too many of our religious don’t follow what the Bible and Magisterium stand for. That is a problem. Maybe as laity we need to do more about holding feet to the fire those who don’t follow and lead correctly. It’s tough when we put our faith in man and not in the teachings themselves.

      Revisiting the basics/root of the faith – I couldn’t agree with you more! The question is, how do we put the cat back in the bag?

    2. That’s a good question about getting back to basics or basic understanding. I think one way is letting people know of extra-church activities. Before I was in an order for a short time, I never knew about retreats, or spiritual direction, or anything besides going to Mass and that’s all folks. People need a venue to come together where they can learn things about our faith. One needs to be careful though there are some that are too “new age” that has little to nothing about faith or God. However, it amazes me that Catholic adults have nothing beyond church that strengthens and stretches our faith and understanding.

    3. YES! I couldn’t agree with this more. Even what little I sort of kind of knew was out there, I didn’t understand the value of. One of the things I loved about a non-denominational church I went to a few times was the number of “small groups” they had and the genuine caring outreach to all sorts of people. We could definitely do a better job in those areas! Well said, YoikesAndAway! 🙂

  5. Well said, Loralei! There are some great Christian authors and speakers, but I often wonder how people know who to trust. Once they are established it’s easier (although I don’t believe they have the full understanding the Catholic Church does), but before those speakers became well-known, trusted sources, they had to start from somewhere. I’m guessing this means there are many others starting out too. How do you know which of these is decent and which is not? A lot of weeds must be walked through to find the few flowers among those who interpret the Bible their own way. Salvation is too important to risk exposure to weeds. Catholic authority has been passed on for centuries. People may be wrong, but following the Catechism isn’t.

    I hope nonCatholics take your invitation to consider the Catholic Church’s interpretation to heart!

    1. Hi Kerri! Thanks for your thoughts! What you said really hits home for me- those very questions were a huge part of my journey to the Catholic Church. It was overwhelming for me to try and figure out who I believed was giving correct teaching- and my authority was myself, which was an uncomfortable place to be.

    2. Loralei, I’m a cradle Catholic but made far too many justifications for making myself the authority or was just too lazy, ignorant, busy, what else??? to find out and follow Church teachings. I think many Catholics make themselves the authority. It’s kind of what sin is all about I guess.

      Nice article and (even though you’ve been Catholic for a while) WELCOME HOME! 🙂

    3. Laurence Charles Ringo

      I find it interesting that you claim that…”people may be wrong, but following the Catechism isn’t”…Wow! Is it your opinion that your catechism trumps the Holy Scriptures?? I am absolutely flabbergasted that you actually believe that. But then again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, you just made the case that Roman Catholics have litter regard for the Book you claim you gave to the world…What a crock. Here’s my daily foundational Scriptural passage that has NEVER failed me: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge HIM and He will direct your paths”. Trust me Ms.Bishop: your catechism will NEVER top that. Peace in Christ to you. ?

    4. Dear LCR, Missed you-was so sure you would chime in here sooner. Better late than never. LCR, I know you do not “lean to your own understanding,” and I believe you are honest and you are searching.

      Jesus said – in the Bible ! – “upon this rock I will build my Church.” That was “church” – singular. Many of us believe that one church is the Catholic Church; e.g. any baptism done correctly with the right words and the water – poured, sprinkled, immersed [you can I can discuss that one elsewhere] – initiates a person into the Catholic Church. Yes, when they come in later, they either are not baptized again, or they are baptized “conditionally.” If you know which one is that one church, let me know.

      As for the Catechism-on a “know the enemy” basis, I have read Mein Kampf, Alinsky’s Rules for Democrats, {ooops, sorry} Radicals, My Body My Self, and Amoris Laetitia. You would do well – I suspect you already have – to read the Catechism. There is much there you accept and believe. And I think you agree: there is and can be only one truth, only one Truth. You and I are seeking it.

      As for my comment above, do you have a response re translations? Please provide the Bible cite for your position.

      God bless you, LCR.


      Guy McClung, Texas

    5. Wow Laurence, You say “Peace in Christ,” but your words hold a different tone. I never said the Catechism trumps the Holy Scripture. They should complement one another, not be victorious one over another. I never claimed we gave the Bible to the world. God did that. Finally, we all trust something or someone to interpret the Bible. When you trust yourself to interpret God’s Word, you lean on your own subjective understanding. That was one of the points of the article.

      You’ve tried to malign my character by speaking mistruths of me without Love for me or for our readers. I don’t mind your attack. I’ve had worse and probably will again. I am not angry. I have no need to be. Instead, I am genuinely sorry for you, and I stand by what I’ve written.

      God Bless…

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful and “simple” explanation of the Church’s Magisterial teachings. There is only one Truth. And this Truth is not your truth or my truth, as we read and “interpret” Sacred Scripture. As you point out, there can be only one authoritative interpretation of the Bible.

    1. Excellent article! Thank you. Get a Bible-that’s the compilation of books inspired by God in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – and try to find sola scriptura in those words. If you don’t read the Bible, but read a translation, try to find authority in the Bible for translations, and instructions on how to do them and who is empowered to translate.

      Another thing my sola scriptura friends cannot point to in the Bible is the rules, critieria, process, and standards for choosing one translation that says X, over another translation that says NOT X.

      Fair trade organic coffee goes great with fair trade chocolate-enjoy. And there is some organic peruvian coffee out there with a hint of chocolate-both joys in a single cup.

      Guy McClung, Texas

    2. Thank you so much for reading! Yes- I’ve heard that circular argument of trying to find Sola Scriptura in the Bible, and I think it’s a strong one! There is a lot of evidence in the Bible that the early Church itself used tradition and a teaching authority, besides the fact that there was no written New Testament for many years as well.

    3. Thank you so much for reading. Yes, absolutely- there is a Truth, and it is so beautiful to know God didn’t leave us with a Bible and no way to know what He meant to communicate through it!

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